On a rainy Saturday afternoon, Kelly Lycan is in the midst of installing her new exhibition, Underglow. A significant part of the show, which opens at Presentation House Gallery this Friday (September 12), is a life-size re-creation of the interior of the historic New York gallery of avant-garde art known as 291. Replicating the décor but not the art, she’s working from a grainy copy of a black-and-white photo of the place taken by its founder, Alfred Stieglitz, in 1906. Which means that she is translating the two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional space back into three dimensions.
Here, her interest in modes of display intersects with her curiosity about representation and the “perpetual reproduction” of images. Although the photographs (and, later, the paintings and drawings) shown at 291 were fearlessly modern, the exhibition space was decidedly Victorian. “Exhibition design in the late 1800s, early 1900s, was really referencing domestic space,” Lycan remarks to the Straight.
Despite the concept-driven nature of her art—which she describes as “currently focused on the way objects are valued, devalued, and revalued, dependent upon their place of display”—Lycan’s involvement in the installation of her PHG show is markedly physical. The gallery is scattered with tools, cans, boxes, drop sheets, and fixtures, and the artist’s hands and work apron are splotched with paint and glue. She briefly consults with her assistant on the wall colour, then walks the Straight through the installation.
As you emerge from it, into the unadorned gallery beyond, you see the work’s raw wood backing, as if you were behind the scenes on a film set. The metaphor is intentional—and perhaps autobiographical. Lycan, who has in the past supported her art practice by working as a set decorator in film and an art director for TV ads, says, “Modes of display and film sets are very much about these illusions.” After immersing yourself in the experiential aspect of Underglow, you are jarred into remembering where you are—and asked to consider why.
Lycan’s practice—part installation, part photo-based—was nurtured at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and later, through a master’s program in fine arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Born in Edmonton and raised in Rocky Mountain House, she arrived in Vancouver around the turn of the millennium, but has spent considerable time since then in artist residencies, in Canada and abroad.
Her most recent residency, however, has been in a City of Vancouver live-work space, enabling her to ramp up her art production. In late spring, she showed Autobiography for No One, a critically acclaimed, all-white installation at the SFU Gallery. In addition to her PHG show this fall, she has just opened a collaborative exhibition with Montreal artist Celia Perrin Sidarous at Gallery 295, a project space behind the Lab, on East 2nd Avenue. And she recently took part in a residency near Seoul, Korea, with the artists’ collective Instant Coffee.
“I’m not really fond of the isolated studio practice,” Lycan says. “I like collaborating, I like that exchange of ideas and travelling together.” Each way of working, she adds, has its rewards and its challenges. “It’s nice to have two practices—one of them is usually active.” Very active, indeed.